China’s Top Food Quality Official Resigns
The chief of China’s food and product quality agency was forced to resign Monday in a growing scandal over the country’s tainted milk supply, which has already sickened more than 50,000 infants and killed at least three children, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
The official, Li Changjiang, is the most senior government official to lose his job in the scandal. His resignation was announced Monday evening, as the government widened its investigation into how an industrial chemical contaminated powdered baby formula and milk products made by some of the country’s biggest dairy companies.
It is one of the nation’s worst food safety scandals in memory, exceeding the troubles of a year ago when China was found to have exported tainted pet food ingredients, toothpaste, seafood and dangerous lead-contaminated toys.
The government has already arrested 19 people suspected of intentionally spiking milk supplies with melamine, an industrial chemical made from coal that is normally used in the production of plastics and fertilizer.
It is poisonous when ingested and is banned from food production. But unscrupulous milk dealers here may have added melamine to watered-down milk to artificially inflate protein counts, officials say.
Compounding the problem was a chain of neglect and a possible cover-up. The Sanlu Group, China’s largest producer of powdered baby formula, received complaints months ago about suspected problems, but the company waited until Aug. 2 to tell local authorities, who waited until Sept. 9 to tell provincial authorities, the provincial officials said.
Sanlu finally recalled 700 tons of the formula on Sept. 11. Government testing then turned up tainted samples of powdered formula at 21 other companies, and the scandal exploded.
Now, with tens of thousands of babies ill, more than 10,000 hospitalized, and state media reporting a fourth death, worried parents have been rushing to hospitals around the country to have their children checked for kidney damage, and dairy executives are scrambling to save their companies, promising to compensate victims and overhaul their product safety tests.
Millions of gallons of dairy products have been recalled in Hong Kong, elsewhere in China, and in Taiwan, Singapore and other countries, devastating China’s fast-growing $18 billion dairy industry. The government fired the head of one large dairy company, and on Monday, fired the Communist Party chief in the city of Shijiazhuang, home of one of the dairy companies at the center of the scandal.
China’s dairy products are not approved for export to the United States.
For years, Beijing backed a national health campaign to encourage children to drink more milk. Now it is trying to demonstrate its commitment to food safety.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Li Keqiang, a member of the Politburo, visited hospitals and supermarkets.
China started a national food safety campaign last year, after melamine-tainted pet food ingredients it exported sickened cats and dogs in the United States, some fatally. Substandard factories were closed, and safe food supplies were pledged for the Olympic Games this year. In July 2007, the head of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, was executed for corruption and dereliction of duty.
But now, there are questions on why consumer complaints about the tainted milk took months to surface — emerging only after the Olympics were over — and whether dairy officials and government officials conspired to cover up the details.
The Fonterra Group, a New Zealand dairy giant, says it was aware in August of problem milk made by Sanlu, its Chinese partner, weeks before it was made public in China, and Fonterra officials pressed China to release more information.
International health experts are now assessing the situation.
“We’re discussing this with the government,” said Hans Troedsson, chief China representative of the World Health Organization. “They are investigating how these delays have occurred. It’s important to know so we can prevent this in the future.”
Beijing seems to be reacting more swiftly this year and has allowed extensive media coverage of the milk scandal.
Still, some analysts are wondering how milk contamination could have been so widespread, affecting the country’s top brands — Mengniu, Yili and Sanlu — given the government’s pledges and its food safety campaign, and why melamine was again the agent.
Mr. Li, as chief of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, was one of the officials in charge of monitoring the nation’s food and product safety.
Last year, Mr. Li was a strong advocate for more testing and inspections of products made in China. He often defended the quality of Chinese goods and criticized the Western media and American businessmen, saying they had exaggerated the country’s product-quality problems.
His resignation was announced Monday in a brief statement through Xinhua, which said he would be replaced by his deputy, Wang Yong.
Xinhua said the State Council, one of Beijing’s powerful ruling bodies, called the milk scandal a “severe food safety incident” and cited a recent law requiring the removal of top officials who fail to fulfill their duties or cause severe accidents that are deemed avoidable